My top 10 Quentin Tarantino films

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Today is the 54th birthday of my favourite film director, Quentin Tarantino. So to celebrate, here’s my rundown of the 10 best movies he’s directed and/or written. Click the links for full reviews…

10. Kill Bill Vol 1 (2003) – 100 minutes of escapism.

9. The Hateful Eight (2015) – a character-driven chamber piece.

8. Django Unchained (2012) – it might not have greatness, but it does have bags of distinction.

7. Death Proof (2007) – certainly Quentin’s least successful movie and probably his least loved – but that gives it an underdog quality.

6. True Romance (1993) – a pleasing meshing of director Tony Scott and writer Tarantino’s styles.

5. From Dusk Till Dawn (1995) – terrific dialogue, great group dynamics, reversals of expectation, power games, grudging respect and edgy humour.

4. Inglourious Basterds (2009) – very impressive and headlined by a tremendous cast with some electrifying dialogue.

3. Reservoir Dogs (1992) – filmed 25 years ago, but is still stunning. Still captivating. Still fresh as fuck.

2. Jackie Brown (1997) – as it gets older, and you get older with it, it becomes more and more effective.

1.  Pulp Fiction (1994) – a sprawling film-noir masterpiece, populated by fascinating and entertaining characters, with more going on in 147 minutes than in most film directors’ entire careers.

The Hateful Eight (2015, Quentin Tarantino)

hatefuleight

Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists. Seriously, this is a very recent film with some big revelations so please only read on if you’ve seen it.

Eight (or so) people are trapped in a roadside cabin called Minnie’s Haberdashery during a blizzard – but not all are who they say they are…

What does QT do? Quentin Tarantino writes, directs and provides some narration. The film very nearly didn’t happen. Tarantino got the hump after his draft script was leaked online, but was eventually persuaded to carry on.

Notable characters:
* Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson) is a former army officer who fought with the North in the American Civil War, but he’s now a bounty hunter. Stranded in the snow, he talks his way onto a stagecoach – in part because he has a handwritten letter from the late Abraham Lincoln – and ends up in a cabin with some strangers. We later learn there’s a bounty on Warren’s head, thanks to him killing some prisoners during the war, and that he faked the letter as a way of ingratiating himself with people. It’s a grandstanding performance – big, theatrical and reliably entertaining in the Jacksonian tradition.
* OB (James Parks) is a stagecoach driver who’s been hired by…
* John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth (Kurt Russell) is a bounty hunter who’s transporting his quarry, a woman called Daisy, across country. He routinely beats on her but wants her alive so he can see her hang. They also end up in the blizzard-bound cabin. Russell’s having fun with the larger-than-life Ruth.
* Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has a $10,000 reward on her head, hence Ruth’s eagerness to get her to the authorities. She’s a feral, foul-mouthed loose cannon of a character. Despite having an awful lot of standing-around-while-the-men-talk to do, Leigh’s punk-attitude performance is so strong it bagged her an Oscar nomination.
* Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) is on his way to the nearest town, Red Rock, to be sworn in as the new sheriff but also gets trapped at the cabin. The son of a Southern war hero, he’s a real shit-stirrer of a character.
* Bob aka Marco the Mexican (Demián Bichir) says he’s running Minnie’s Haberdashery in its owners’ absence… but in reality is one of Daisy’s gang, who have laid a trap for John Ruth.
* Oswaldo Mobray aka English Pete Hicox (Tim Roth) has a clipped accent and says he’s the new hangman in Red Rock – but is actually another of Daisy’s gang. It’s such an affected English accent, in fact, that it’s something of a relief when he reverts to his real voice, which is closer to the actor’s own.
* General Sandford Smithers (Bruce Dern) is a guest at the cabin when the others arrive. A batty old racist, he has a grudge against Warren even before he learns that Warren killed his son (or at least claims to have done as a taunt).
* Joe Gage aka Grouch Douglass (Michael Madsen) initially sits in the corner of the cabin not bothering anyone. He says he’s a cowpuncher on his way to visit his mother, but is another of Daisy’s compadres.
* A narrator (Quentin Tarantino) provides some exposition about 20 minutes of action we’ve skipped over, then returns in a flashback to explain the preparation Daisy’s friends did before the stagecoach arrived. Quentin reads the lines really well – crisply and with a sense of drama.
* Jody Domergue (Channing Tatum) has been hiding under the floorboards ever since Ruth, Warren, Mannix and Daisy arrived – he’s Daisy’s brother and along with Bob, Oswaldo and Joe is there to rescue her. It’s an audacious plot twist… which doesn’t really stack up. If Jody’s intention is to free Daisy and he doesn’t object to killing innocent people to do it, why wait so long to do it? Incidentally, the notion of previously unseen characters who have been eavesdropping on the action was also used in Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds.
* ‘Six-horse’ Judy (Zoe Bell) is a stagecoach driver who brings Jody and the boys to the cabin. She’s a perky, likeable woman from Auckland.
* Minnie Mink (Dana Gourrier), Gemma (Belinda Owino) and Sweet Dave (Gene Jones) run the cabin. Minnie and Dave are a couple.

Returning actors: Samuel L Jackson has his seventh role in a Tarantino-written film. Tim Roth plays his first Tarantino character in 20 years and fourth overall. Michael Madsen is also staring in a fourth QT film. Kurt Russell had been in Death Proof. Walton Goggins (Django Unchained), Bruce Dern (Django Unchained), James Parks (Kill Bill Vol. 1, Django Unchained) and Zoe Bell (Death Proof, Django Unchained) also crop up. As mentioned, Tarantino himself has a voice part.

Music: We get the first full-length, purpose-written score on a Tarantino-directed film – it’s by Ennio Morricone and is very effective. As Morricone ran out of time, though, some cues he wrote for The Thing (1982) and Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) have been reused. There are also a few songs by people such as The White Stripes and Roy Orbison. In the film, Bob plays Silent Night on the piano and Daisy plays 19th-century ballad Jim Jones at Botony Bay on the guitar. Daisy’s song led to a notorious incident on set. John Ruth was scripted to take the guitar off her and smash it to pieces. However, Kurt Russell accidentally did it when – instead of a prop replacement – a priceless 1870s Martin guitar was being used for the shot. You can see the take in the finished film. The look of shock and disbelief on Jennifer Jason Leigh’s face is genuine.

Time shifts and chapters: This is another Tarantino film divided into chapters with on-screen titles. This time there are six: ‘Last Stage to Red Rock’ (which lasts about 17 minutes), ‘Son of a Gun’ (12 minutes), ‘Minnie’s Haberdashery’ (58 minutes), Domergue’s Got a Secret’ (23 minutes), ‘The Four Passengers’ (20 minutes) and ‘Black Man, White Hell’ (22 minutes). The third features a brief flashback; the fourth rewinds in time to show us an earlier incident from a different point of view; while the penultimate section is set ‘Earlier that morning’. As is often the case with flashbacks that explain what’s *really* going on, The Four Passengers is a hoot.

Connections: The idea for The Hateful Eight began as what would have been Quentin Tarantino’s first novel – a continuation of Django Unchained called Django in White Hell. However, he felt the story didn’t really suit the central character, so he eventually retooled the idea as a movie script and Django was replaced by Major Marquis Warren. (This explains why Warren is a bounty hunter.) Additionally, Tim Roth’s Pete Hicox is intended to be the grandfather of Inglourious Basterds’s Archie Hicox. And now’s a good a time as any to mention Red Apple. It’s a fictional brand of cigarettes that’s mentioned in The Hateful Eight a couple of times and previously featured in Pulp Fiction, From Dusk Till Dawn, Four Rooms and Kill Bill.

Review: The Hateful Eight has the strangest opening of any Tarantino film. We start with big, empty, wintery landscape shots, which tell us we’re in a world of cold, harsh and wide-open spaces. (They also show off the gorgeous Ultra Panavision 70mm photography, which is by Robert Richardson and aches to be seen on a mammoth cinema screen.) One of the shots is a lingering look at a macabre carving of a man on a cross and lasts for 154 seconds. Add in Ennio Morricone’s stirring music and it’s all very BIG and EPIC. But this is a bum steer. Rather than a sweeping, Old-West blockbuster, this film is a character-driven chamber piece reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs. (The presence of Michael Madsen and Tim Roth only reinforces that feeling, of course.) Admittedly, it takes a while to get there. There’s fun dialogue and plot information in the film’s first half hour, but this extended prologue has come in for criticism. In a 160-minute movie, you can’t help feeling there could be a better way to start the story. (Maybe begin with Ruth and co arriving at the cabin, then present the earlier events in flashback?) However, once we hit Minnie’s Haberdashery – where more than two-thirds of the movie takes place – the stage is set, the crazy, well-cast characters shine, and the story clips along very enjoyably. A number of minor mysteries are also being set up. Where’s Minnie? Why does the door not close properly? Why doesn’t Bob know what he’s doing? Why is there a jellybean on the floor? But the movie smartly doesn’t emphasise them. These questions simmer away in the background while the focus is on the characters. It’s a wide-ranging group – three nationalities, three races, both genders, a big spread of ages – which is rare in Westerns. It’s refreshing and makes for some interesting dynamics. However, having said that, the film’s treatment of women is difficult to excuse. The main female character, Daisy, is subjected to more violence than everyone else put together, while three other women are killed simply because they’re in the way. Daisy is actually the most powerful character in the story (she has a strong, well-tooled gang to back her up) and its most cunning (she *really* plays the long game), yet the film doesn’t allow her any victory. Instead, she’s lynched by a racist. There’s also a hard-to-justify number of coincidences in the plot. Characters are forever bumping into people they’ve heard of in the middle of nowhere. Is this meant to be a conceptual joke? A play on how sparsely populated the Wild West actually was? Perhaps. An even bigger question you keep asking yourself is: who are the Hateful Eight? Posters, DVD covers and Wikipedia define the group as Warren, Ruth, Domergue, Mannix, Bob, Mobray, Gage and Smithers, but that ignores OB (and Jody). Of course, maybe the title is just a pun on the 1960 film The Magnificent Seven – or an acknowledgement of the fact Tarantino considers this to be his eighth movie (he ignores Four Rooms and counts Kill Bill as one film). On the whole, The Hateful Eight is worth seeing and has many things to commend it. But it lacks the focus of Reservoir Dogs, the ingenuity of Pulp Fiction, the soul of Jackie Brown, the tension of Inglourious Basterds and the dry humour of Django Unchained – all things that would help. Very good rather than great.

Eight bowls of stew out of 10

Django Unchained (2012, Quentin Tarantino)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In the 1850s, a bounty hunter helps a freed slave who wants to rescue his wife…

What does QT do? Quentin Tarantino wrote the script, directed the film, and cast himself in the minor role of a man transporting slaves to a mining company. It’s a dreadful acting performance – easily Quentin’s worst in one of his own films. It features an Australian accent that veers from South African to cockney via no-sorry-that’s-actually-indecipherable.

Notable characters:
* Django (Jamie Foxx) – the D is silent – is in chains when we first see him. After he’s bought by a man called Schultz, Django agrees to help him in exchange for his freedom. They spend a winter together hunting down bounties, then head to Mississippi to find Django’s enslaved wife… Foxx plays the role part naïve, part numb, which means Django is an oddly blank character. The true heart of the film arguably lies with…
* Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) travels across America seemingly as a dentist; his wagon even has a giant tooth on a spring rocking back and forth. However, he’s actually a successful bounty hunter. When we meet him he’s searching for the fugitive Brittle brothers and needs Django’s help. Schultz is German, and English is his second language, yet he’s as verbose and articulate as any Tarantino creation. He does a chunk of the talking in most scenes, and it’s a beguiling performance of charisma and moral ambiguity. (It won Waltz his second Oscar for playing a Tarantino character.) The film becomes noticeably less interesting after Schultz is killed.
* Sheriff Bill Sharp (Don Stroud) challenges Schultz and Django when they saunter into a town and flaunt its racist policies. Schultz shoots him dead with a concealed weapon (very steampunky, this, like something from Wild Wild West) then tells the local marshall, Gill Tatum (Tom Wopat), that Sharp was a wanted man. As an incident to show off Schultz’s job and commanding wits, it’s superb.
* Old Man Carrucan (Bruce Dern) is Django’s former owner, who we see in a flashback. He branded Django and his wife for trying to escape, then sold them separately.
* Broomhilda ‘Hildi’ von Shaft (Kerry Washington) is Django’s wife. She was once owned by a German family, hence her surname, but is now a slave on a plantation called Candyland. When Django and Schultz arrive to look for her, she’s been put in a hotbox – a half-buried metal crate left out in the searing sun – as a punishment.
* Spencer ‘Big Daddy’ Bennett (Don Johnson) is a slave-owning, plantation-owning, big-hat-owning Southern gentleman who is definitely Southern but certainly no gentleman. Schultz talks his way onto the plantation so he and Django can search for the Brittle brothers (MC Gainey, Cooper Huckabee and Doc Duhame).
* A member of the local Ku Klux Klan (Jonah Hill, credited as Bag Head #2) features in a silly scene where KKK twats argue over their homemade outfits.
* Leo Moguy (Dennis Christopher) is a lawyer who puts Schultz and Django in touch with an important character called…
* Calvin J Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a flamboyant, arrogant Francophile who runs a plantation, has lots of slaves and is fond of forcing the men to fight each other to the death. He’s also Hildi’s owner, so Schultz and Django attempt to con him into selling her to them… As talented as DiCaprio clearly is, he’s miscast here. The character is too young and not enough of a threat.
* Butch Pooch (James Remar, looking like Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy) is Candie’s bodyguard. As Django notes, he’s being rude by wearing his hat indoors. Remar also plays another small role in the film: Ace Speck, who owns Django as the story begins.
* Amerigo Vessepi (Franco Nero) is a slave-owner whose best man loses a staged fight with one of Candie’s slaves. When Vessepi talks to Django, there’s a hint he may have another name (see Connections).
* Billy Crash (Walton Goggins) is one of Candie’s sadistic henchmen.
* Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) is the head ‘house slave’ at Candyland, which gives him licence to boss other slaves about and have a crotchety grandfather vibe with Calvin. He’s an elderly man with white hair and a stick, and he instantly takes against Django. He soon rumbles his and Schultz’s plan.
* Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly (Laura Cayouette) is Candie’s widowed sister. She’s only really in the story to justify why Hildi is working in the house rather than on the land, but is involved in two of the movie’s best moments: when she innocently points out that Hildi has been eyeing up Django; and her slapstick death during the action climax.
* Three employees of the LeQunt Dickey Mining Company (Michael Parks, Quentin Tarantino and John Jarratt) transport Django across country. He cons them into letting him free and then kills them. They’re Australian, for some reason.

Returning actors: Christoph Waltz had been in Inglourious Basterds. Samuel L Jackson gets Tarantino role number six. Zoe Bell (Death Proof), Michael Bowen (Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Vol. 1), James Parks (Kill Bill Vol. 1) and Tom Savini (From Dusk Till Dawn) have mute cameos as Candyland employees. Michael Parks (From Dusk Till Dawn, both Kill Bills, Death Proof) appears again. Tarantino’s role is the sixth time he’s played one of his own characters.

Music: The rousing theme song is taken from the 1966 Italian film Django (see Connections). Incidental cues from movies such as Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), The Last American Hero (1973) and Under Fire (1983) have been recycled. Various other pre-existing tunes are used too – Beethoven, Wagner, a lyrically apt track from the Italian film Lo chiamavano King (1971) – as well as songs written specifically for the film by artists such as John Legend, Anthony Hamilton and Rick Ross.

Time shifts and chapters: It’s the most orthodox structure of any Tarantino script. We follow one linear storyline in chronological order, and Django and/or Schultz are in almost every scene. There are brief flashbacks here and there, but they’re motivated cutaways rather than the movie telling its story out of sequence.

Connections: The lead character’s name is a reference to the Italian film Django (1966), a nihilistic Spaghetti Western that has spawned more than 30 sequels, rip-offs and homages. (One of them, Sukiyaki Western Django (2007), actually featured Quentin Tarantino in an acting role.) Although he uses the alias Amerigo Vessepi, the eponymous character from the 1966 film cameos in Django Unchained played by original actor Franco Nero. Meanwhile, Hildi’s surname tells us that she and Django are ancestors of 1970s private detective John Shaft. In Kill Bill Vol. 2, the Bride climbed out of a grave belonging to ‘Paula Schultz’. Tarantino has said that Paula is the wife of Christoph Waltz’s Django Unchained character. According to her headstone, she lived until 1893 so presumably they’re separated by the time of this film. He never mentions her. And finally, in 2014 Jamie Foxx reprised his Django for a cameo in Seth McFarlane’s film A Million Ways To Die in the West.

Review: There’s a great line in Bill Bryson’s 2008 book on William Shakespeare where he’s talking about the Bard’s habit of shamelessly lifting plots and dialogue from other writers. “What Shakespeare did, of course, was take pedestrian pieces of work and endow them with distinction and, very often, greatness.” It rings true for Quentin Tarantino too, who has often used other films as a starting point for a project. But when you watch these movies – 1973’s Coffy, 1971’s Vanishing Point, 1978’s The Inglorious Bastards, 1966’s Django and many others – what’s often noticeable is how superior his resulting films are. They’re classier, more polished, more dynamic and more interesting. (As David Bowie put it once: it doesn’t matter who does something first. It’s who does it second that counts.) Part of this is down to budget, of course. Django Unchained cost $100 million to make. The 1966 Django looks like it cost about two-and-six. But while Tarantino often stands on the shoulders of averagely tall people, he always brings something new, something fresh. For Django Unchained, one such fresh element is that it’s a Western that technically isn’t a Western. It uses the tropes and clichés of the genre (horses! Guns! Standoffs! Crash-zooms! Glorious widescreen!), but the story is actually set in the Deep South before the American Civil War. And crucially it’s about a subject ignored by most Westerns: black Americans and slavery. Many people have lambasted this film for its paper-thin analysis. Slavery was a bad thing, it says, and slave owners were bastards. Well, yeah… But that’s like dismissing The Great Escape because it’s prioritises fun over philosophy. Speaking of which, this film is often a lot of fun. With a sense of humour so dry it’s parched, Django Unchained is basically a comedy. It does have some very serious elements – severe racism, the N-word used liberally, a slave-fighting subplot that comes out of left-field, torture, sadistic violence – but there’s also plenty of whimsy, gallows humour and actual jokes. The story is engaging and the characters, especially Shultz, are very watchable. But on the downside it’s too long with a number of superfluous scenes. The KKK members and the tracker characters, for example, feel like they’re going to be important but don’t go anywhere. The finale also lacks tension, descending into blood splashes, squib hits, slo-mo deaths and a huge body count. So Django Unchained might not have greatness, but it does have bags of distinction.

Eight bills of sale out of 10

Inglourious Basterds (2009, Quentin Tarantino)

Film Title: Inglourious Basterds

Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In France during the Second World War, two plans to assassinate the Nazi high command are put into place…

What does QT do? Writer/director Quentin Tarantino had been mooting this project for over a decade, and it seems he had a few failed attempts at finishing the script. It started off as a loose remake of the 1978 Italian movie Quel maledetto treno blindato, which was released in America under the name The Inglorious Bastards. (An exploitation rip-off of The Dirty Dozen, it’s a gung-ho men-on-a-mission film. Bits of it are fun.) But the more Tarantino wrote, the more his script moved away from the original. The Brad Pitt subplot has an echo of the 70s film, but this is certainly not a remake. Tarantino claims his misspelt title is just an affectation. He also has a cameo as a dead German soldier who’s being scalped.

Notable characters:
* Perrier LaPadite (Denis Ménochet) is a French farmer who’s visited one day by an SS officer hunting for Jews. LaPadite’s conversation with the officer, Landa, is the film’s opening salvo and is a scene loaded with menace. One of LaPadite’s briefly seen daughters is played by Léa Seydoux, who later stared with Landa actor Christoph Waltz in Spectre (2015).
* SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) has gained the nickname The Jew Hunter because he combs war-torn France looking for them. It’s an astonishing performance, for which Waltz won an Oscar, a Bafta and a Golden Globe. Landa is unspeakably evil – if all the cunts in the world got together to vote for the biggest cunt, he’d stand a chance of winning – but you can’t take your eyes off him. He’s polite, seemingly easy-going and has a childlike and formal manner, yet has ultimate power in almost every scene. Because of the story’s chapter-like structure, the character actually goes away for long stretches. But he still dominates the film.
* Shosanna Dreyfus aka Emmanuelle Mimieux (Mélanie Laurent) flees LaPadite’s farmhouse when Landa kills her family. Four years later, she’s living under an assumed name in Paris and managing a cinema. When the Nazis plan to use her establishment for a film premiere, she sees an opportunity to kill the top brass. Laurent gives a brilliant performance of strength and quiet turmoil.
* First Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is a showboating army officer who leads a small platoon of Jewish-American soldiers. They call themselves the Basterds and their mission is to hunt down and kill Nazis. (Raine insists on scalping the victims.) Pitt is as broad as his Tennessee accent, but it’s quite entertaining.
* Staff Sergeant Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) is Raine’s second in command. He’s acquired the nickname The Bear Jew and enjoys killing Nazis with a baseball bat. Eli Roth is billed fourth in the opening credits. FOURTH. It pays to be Quentin Tarantino’s mate, it seems.
* Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke)… oh, you know.
* Sergeant Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) is an Austrian member of the Basterds. They recruited him after he killed 13 members of the Gestapo.
* A narrator (Samuel L Jackson) twice provides some exposition. He tells us Stiglitz’s backstory then later explains why cans of nitrate film are so dangerous.
* Private First Class Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) is a young German who has risen to fame because he killed 250 Allies in three days from a sniper’s position. A movie called Nation’s Pride has been made about his exploits, with Zoller playing himself. He meets Shosanna/Emmanuelle and flirts with her. But she isn’t interested because he’s, you know, a fascist fuck-stain. Brühl is really good at playing a cocky little twerp who can, and does, turn nasty at a moment’s notice.
* Marcel (Jacky Ido) is Shosanna’s lover, a black man who works at the cinema. He’s an oddly minor character who we sadly never focus on.
* Major Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl) appears twice, firstly when he delivers Shosanna to a meeting with Goebbels, then later in an underground tavern when he suspects some German officers of being spies.
* Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) and aide (ie, mistress) Francesca Mondino (Julie Dreyfus) are in Paris to oversee the premiere of Nation’s Pride.
* Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) is a British Army officer who used to be a film critic and is an expert on German cinema. He’s handpicked for a mission to go behind enemy lines, hook up with the Basterds, and assassinate some Nazis. However, once he and the Basterds have met a double agent in a local tavern, Hicox gives the game away by using a non-German hand gesture (very Red-Grant-ordering-the-wrong-wine-in-From-Russia-With-Love, this). Fassbender is terrific, clipped accent and all. (Simon Pegg was considered for the role but was busy on The Adventures of Tintin.)
* General Ed Fenech (Mike Myers) gives Hicox his assignment. Winston Churchill (Rod Taylor) watches from afar.
* Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) is a famed German movie star and also a double agent for the Allies. She arranged to meet Hicox once he’s in France, but chooses a location that brings a whole heap of problems… Kruger’s is another excellent performance.
* An OSS Commander (Harvey Keitel) is heard over a radio when Landa wants to make a deal for his surrender.

Returning actors: Brad Pitt had an enjoyable cameo in True Romance. Eli Roth and Omar Doom (one of the Basterds) had been in Death Proof. Julie Dreyfus was in Kill Bill Vol. 1. Michael Bacall was in Tarantino’s CSI episode and Death Proof. Bo Svenson, who’s glimpsed in the Nation’s Pride film, had a small role in Kill Bill Vol. 2 and was also the lead actor in 1978’s The Inglorious Bastards. Although only providing voice parts, Samuel L Jackson is in his fifth Tarantino film, Harvey Keitel his fourth.

Music: Tarantino wanted the great Ennio Morricone to score the film – and it would have been the first purpose-written score for one of his movies – but the composer was busy. So some archive cues by Morricone and others have been employed. David Bowie’s 1982 song Cat People (Putting Out Fire) is used to great effect when Shosanna is preparing for the premiere. She’s also surrounded by the colour red, symbolising her murderous intent.

Time shifts and chapters: The film is divided into five chapters with on-screen titles: ‘Once upon a time… in Nazi-occupied France’ (which lasts around 20 minutes), ‘Inglourious Basterds’ (16 minutes), ‘German night in Paris’ (25 minutes), ‘Operation Kino’ (40 minutes) and ‘Revenge of the Giant Face’ (42 minutes). They play in chronological order, but the second has fun with flashbacks within flashbacks, while the finale also features brief flashbacks.

Connections: Tarantino has said that Eli Roth’s character, Donny Donowitz, is the father of Lee Donowitz, the coke-head movie producer in True Romance.

Review: Inglourious Basterds is a film made up of great scenes rather than a wholly great film. There is a through-line and the subplots build to a shared climax, but the episodic structure means that characters often go absent and the tone varies quite a bit. (We switch from scenes of unbearable tension to sections played for laughs.) So as a piece of storytelling it’s a bit fragmented. Despite all this, though, it’s still very impressive and is headlined by a tremendous cast with some electrifying dialogue. Some of the individual chapters are also mini-masterpieces in their own right, such as the opening scene at the farm. Here, Tarantino shows a *masterful* control of time and space. The build-up of anxiety is palpable, as is the creeping horror, and there’s a constant threat of violence and catastrophe underneath the surface. The camerawork is also thrilling in its clarity and precision: it’s always telling story, always adding meaning and subtext. You find yourself holding your breath while Landa gently (ie, menacingly) questions LaPadite. The scene is reminiscent of the Westerns of director Sergio Leone, which favoured long, slow, deliberate preludes to violence and revelations. In fact, the chapter title is a pun on Leone’s best film: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). This buttock-clenching fear is generated elsewhere in the film too. Landa’s meeting with Shosanna in Paris (the strudel scene) is equally nerve-shredding – despite a few hints, you’re never quite sure if he knows who she is – and the sequence in the tavern, while a superficially light-hearted conversation, has real edginess and danger once a Gestapo officer sits at the table. On the other hand, despite giving the movie its title, the Basterds’ scenes tend to be a bit cartoony. Cartoons with horrific bursts of violence, that is. Other notable aspects of this marvellous movie include the fact it’s Tarantino’s first period film (he revels in the culturally arrested Paris of 1944), the extensive use of subtitles (there are entire conversations in French and German), a gleeful disregard for historical accuracy (THEY KILL OFF HITLER!), and a motif built around the power of cinema (which is evident in Shosanna’s job, Zoller’s fame, the nitrate film, Hicox’s career, the premiere…). It might be damning with faint praise to say that Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s fourth best movie. But given the strength of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, that’s still an accolade worth having.

Nine pages of history out of 10

Death Proof (2007, Quentin Tarantino)

027-deathproof

Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Groups of women are hunted by a serial-killing stuntman with a souped-up car…

What does QT do? He wrote the script, directed the film, played a secondary character, and for the first time acted as his own cinematographer. This film has a complex provenance – see Connections.

Notable characters:
* Jungle Julia Lucai (Sydney Poitier) is a local DJ in Austin, Texas, whose show is advertised on numerous billboards around town. She’s laid-back, cool and the leader of her gang of friends, which includes…
* Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) is from New York and has a New York attitude. Her pals have played a trick on her, though. Julia announced on the radio that any man who calls Arlene ‘Butterfly’ and recites a certain poem can have a lap dance.
* Shanna (Jordan Ladd) is the third member of the group. She’s a Southerner who hates people who pronounce her name with a long A.
* Stuntman Mike McKay (Kurt Russell) is a veteran stuntman who’s worked mainly in TV. He wears a decaled jacket and hangs around in bars, observing and sometimes intimidating women. After coercing Arlene into giving him a lap dance, he offers to give a woman called Pam a lift home. Sadly for Pam, Mike is a serial killer who uses his stripped-down car to murder her. He then chases after and kills Julia, Arlene and Shanna, then 14 months later targets another group of female friends. Russell gives a creepy performance, which lapses into an unnerving John Wayne impression at one point.
* Dov (Eli Roth), Nate (Omar Doom) and Omar (Michael Bacall) are the male friends of Julia’s gang, who all hope for a bit of action.
* Warren (Quentin Tarantino) is a fun-loving barman who uses the phrase ‘tasty beverage’ (a reference to Pulp Fiction).
* Pam (Rose McGowan) is an old schoolmate of Julia’s, though they don’t get on. When Mike gives her a lift home, he deliberately races around and brakes hard so she’s mangled to death in the seatbelt-free, encaged passenger seat.
* Dr Dakota Block (Marley Shelton), Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) and Ranger Edgar McGraw (James Parks) feature in one scene at a hospital after Mike’s killed Julia, Arlene and Shanna. Earl is mad because he can’t prove the incident was murder.
* Lee Montgomery (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a nice but slightly dopey actress working on a cheerleader movie in Tennessee. (This is 14 months after the first group of women were killed.) She spends her day off with friends Kim and Abernathy, and wears her cheerleader’s costume… for some reason. Not that I’m complaining. In order to borrow a car from a decidedly dodgy redneck, Lee’s friends leave her with him as collateral… and that’s the last we see of her in the film!
* Kim Mathis (Tracie Thoms) is a brash and confident stuntwoman working on Lee’s film. When Mike attacks the friends, Kim shoots at him and the girls then chase after him, hunt him down and kill him.
* Abernathy Ross (Rosario Dawson) is a make-up artist, who has the day off because Lindsay Lohan does too.
* Zoe Bell (Zoe Bell) is a Kiwi stuntwoman who flies into Tennessee to hang out with pals Kim and Abernathy. As she’s in America, she wants to do ‘ship’s mast’ – a dangerous game that involves being strapped to the bonnet of the car from the movie Vanishing Point while it bombs down country lanes… Tarantino met Bell when she was Uma Thurman’s stuntwoman on Kill Bill, and he was so charmed that he wrote a part for her in this film. Not being an actress, Bell assumed it would be cameo, then read the script and realised that a) she was playing herself, and b) she had *reams* of dialogue. She’s actually pretty good – clearly not an experienced actress, she more than gets by thanks to natural charisma. And of course casting Bell means that the character can do some outrageous stunts and it’s demonstrably her doing them.
* Jasper (Jonathan Loughran) is a creepy local man who owns a muscle car. The girls want to borrow it for a test drive but have no intention of actually buying it.

Returning actors: Michael Parks (From Dusk Till Dawn, both Kill Bills), James Parks (Kill Bill Vol. 1) and Jonathan Loughran (Kill Bill Vol. 1) appear again – see Connections. Michael Bacall was in Tarantino’s CSI episode. Quentin plays a significant role in one of his own films for the first time since Pulp Fiction, 13 years earlier.

Music: The title music is stirring instrumental The Last Race by Jack Nitzsche. A cover of Baby It’s You by Smith (sic: sadly not The Smiths!) features in both halves of the story and subliminally connects the two groups of women – it’s played on a jukebox in the Austin bar, and Lee later sings along to it on her iPod. T. Rex’s Jeepster is also heard on the jukebox, as is Down in Mexico by the Coasters when Arlene does her lap dance. Later on, Julia phones her radio station and asks for Hold Tight by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich to be played on the air. It’s unclear if this is a deliberate mistake or not, but self-proclaimed music expert Julia thinks the band was called Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, *Mitch* & Tich.

Time shifts and chapters: The car crash that kills Julia, Arlene, Shanna and their friend Lanna is shown four times in quick succession so we can focus on each of their horrifically violent deaths.

Connections: Here’s where it gets complicated… Death Proof began as part of a three-hour movie called Grindhouse, which was released in April 2007. Grindhouse consisted of two ‘features’ – Planet Terror, written and directed by Robert Rodriguez, and Death Proof, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino – as well as some trailers for fake films directed by the likes of Eli Roth and Edgar Wright. The idea was to recreate the mood and feel of a 1970s grindhouse cinema, which showed low-budget horror films on a loop. The movie, however, was a big old flop. So outside of North America, the two features were released separately in the autumn with some extras scenes added to punch up their running times (in Grindhouse, they’d both had scenes deliberately missing as an in-joke about bad prints). The standalone Planet Terror is a horror-comedy that, while shallow fun, weaves drunkenly from being too earnest to being too puerile. Co-producer Tarantino has an embarrassing cameo as a rapist. Additionally, some of Grindhouse’s fake trailers have since been expanded into full-length movies: Machete (2010), Hobo With a Shotgun (2011) and Machete Kills (2013). Death Proof, meanwhile, uses a few characters from existing fictions. Jasper is said by some to be the same rapist hillbilly the actor played in Kill Bill Vol. 1. Earl and Edgar McGraw crop up again, having appeared in both the From Dusk Till Dawn and Kill Bill series. They’re also in Planet Terror, as is Dr Dakota Block.

Review: Talking about his career in 2012, Tarantino said he knows he’ll be judged on a body of work. “I want to go out with a terrific filmography,” he claimed. “Death Proof has got to be the worst movie I ever make. And for a left-handed movie, that wasn’t so bad, all right?” This left-handed movie is a homage to a couple of exploitation genres Tarantino loved from an early age – slasher films such as Halloween (1978) and car movies like Vanishing Point (1971). And while set in the present day, Death Proof uses various techniques to make it seem like you’re watching a bad print that’s travelled round from cinema to cinema. The film stock looks cheap, there are scratches, jumps and audio mismatches, while one reel is even in black and white. All this tomfoolery does calm down after a while, thankfully, and the story takes focus. What’s most striking is the fact the movie is ruled by women. (Men in this story are losers, perverts, absent… or a serial killer.) We get to know the girls while they drive around in a car (a la Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction), and each scene gives us substantial chunks of witty dialogue and friends swapping in-jokes and teasing each other. It’s all very entertaining. In the second group’s case there’s also a *seven-minute* long take while the girls have a coffee. One of the bravura highlights of Tarantino’s career, it features four characters, fast-paced dialogue, a drifting camera tracking round the table, and glimpses of Stuntman Mike secretly watching them from afar. Check it out here:

The first half of the film – Julia, Arlene and Shanna’s story – acts as a primer for second. It gives us a blueprint for Mike’s plan, which of course goes wrong next time round. Kim, Abernathy and Zoe are tougher women and fight back. As they do so, the action scenes in the final quarter really are something – we get well-filmed muscle cars driving at high speeds, the rumble of engines and squeaks tof tyres, and of course Zoe Bell clinging to the hood for dear life. Yes, the film’s a bit on the flimsy side. It doesn’t especially *mean* anything. And Tarantino’s not the only person to consider Death Proof his worst film. At 67 per cent, it has the lowest score on Rotten Tomatoes for any QT-directed movie. But this is harsh. Death Proof is certainly Quentin’s least successful movie and probably his least loved – but that gives it an underdog quality. It’s ready to fight back.

Eight 1970 Dodge Challengers out of 10

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: Grave Danger (19 May 2005, Quentin Tarantino)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A member of Las Vegas’s crime-scene investigation team is kidnapped and buried alive…

What does QT do? Quentin Tarantino once claimed to have seen every episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-2015). He watched many while shooting Kill Bill in Beijing and was such a fan that word reached the production team, who asked him to write and direct an episode. In the end, he provided a storyline and the script was written by producers Anthony E Zuiker, Carol Mendelson and Naren Shankar. Once Tarantino began directing on set, it became clear the cut would overrun so the episode was bumped up to a double-length special, which concluded the show’s fifth season.

Notable characters:
* Nick Stokes (George Eads) is a crime-scene officer investigating a call-out as the story begins. However, he’s soon kidnapped and buried alive by someone who has a grudge against the CSI team. In the coffin he has a light, an air fan and a gun…
* Gil Grissom (William Petersen) is the team leader who’s stunned when he’s shown a live video feed of Nick in the coffin.
* Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger) is Grissom’s second in command. When she and Gil need $1 million for ransom money, she convinces her casino-boss father, Sam Braun (Scott Wilson), to give it to her.
* Jim Brass (Paul Guilfoyle) is everyone’s boss.
* Sara Sidle (Jorja Fox), Greg Sanders (Eric Szmanda), David Hodges (Wallace Langham), and Warrick Brown (Gary Dourdan) are colleagues of Nick’s.
* Doc Robbins (Robert David Hall) is the medical examiner. At one point, Nick hallucinates his own autopsy, Doc Robbins performing it while Nick is alive.
* A delivery guy (Michael Bacall) shows up with a package from the kidnapper: it contains an audio cassette and a USB stick.
* Stokes’s parents (Andrew Prine and Moonraker’s Lois Chiles) are kept abreast of the situation.
* Tony Curtis and Frank Gorshin cameo as themselves in a scene at a casino. When cross-dressing is mentioned, Curtis has a gag referring to Some Like It Hot (“Who do you think you’re talking to? Jack Lemon?”). Gorshin died two days before this episode aired.
* Walter Gordon (John Saxon) is the kidnapper, who we never fully see. In his only substantial scene he’s lit to hide his face and then, in a shock cliffhanger at the halfway mark, he blows himself up.
* Kelly Gordon (Aimee Graham) is Walter’s daughter, who’s in prison. Walter’s doing what he’s doing in revenge for her controversial conviction.

Returning actors: John Saxon had a small role in From Dusk Till Dawn. Aimee Graham had acted with Tarantino in From Dusk Till Dawn and been directed by him in Jackie Brown. A clip of Tony Curtis on a chat show was seen in Jackie Brown.

Music: At the start of the episode, Nick is singing along to Bob Neuwirth’s Lucky Too on the radio – and he sings it again later when he thinks he’s being rescued. The kidnapper sends the CSI team a cassette that plays Outside Chance by the Turtles and its lyrics (‘You don’t stand an outside chance!’) play ironically under the rest of the scene. Kasabian’s Running Battle is also heard at one point, while the incidental music is by the show’s composer John M Keane.

Time shifts and chapters: After the cold open (Nick investigating and being captured), we cut back to earlier that same day and follow Nick as he’s given the assignment. Then we jump to him in the coffin and it’s chronological from then on.

Connections: The central idea of a character being buried alive featured in Tarantino’s most recent movie, Kill Bill Vol 2. In a nice visual twist, this time the coffin is made of Plexiglass so we can see the soil and worms and stuff. On original broadcast, the two ‘hours’ of this episode were titled Volume I and Volume 2, aping the naming convention of Kill Bill. Around this time, Tarantino also directed one scene of Robert Rodriguez’s film Sin City (2005), which is a comic-book adaptation that owes a structural debt to Pulp Fiction. He did it to return the favour for Rodriguez writing some music for Kill Bill, and also because it gave him a chance to work with digital cameras for the first time. The scene is a two-hander between Clive Owen and Benicio Del Toro set in a car.

Review: This has a slower style of storytelling than CSI usually provided. There are also no B-plots to cut away to and the momentum sadly loosens rather than tightens as the 90 minutes progresses. But pacing issues aside, this is still an enjoyable enough piece of television. Tarantino’s influence is most clearly felt in the dialogue and his use of close-ups. For a show usually dominated by cold science and forensic procedure, it’s refreshing to have characters talk about real life. Gil chats about a Roy Rodgers certificate he’s bought; other characters play a Dukes of Hazard board game; others shoot the breeze and swap anecdotes about dating. (It must be said that this kind of dialogue disappears once the plot kicks in, however.) And while the team start off very calm and professional considering a friend has gone missing, the realisation of what’s happened to Nick is played in dramatic close-ups. You could write a book – perhaps someone has – on how television overuses the close-up. But Tarantino knows precisely when to cut to one: they all have meaning, are timed to perfection, and tell you something about a character. Also, as in Quentin’s episode of ER, there are also close-ups of equipment and procedures that border on the fetishist.

Seven intestines out of 10

Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004, Quentin Tarantino)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Bride continues to hunt down and kill the people who attacked her on her wedding day…

What does QT do? Wrote and directed.

Notable characters:
* Bill (David Carradine) is finally seen on screen after his face-obscured cameos in Vol. 1. We learn that he tried to kill the Bride, who’d been his protégé, because she quit the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad and was planning to marry a civilian. She was pregnant with his child, though, so he’s been raising the girl since the Bride fell into a coma. It’s a one-gear performance from Carradine.
* The Bride (Uma Thurman) – who we now learn is called Beatrix Kiddo – is seen in a wider variety of states than in Vol. 1. In the present-day scenes she’s still seeking revenge on Bill and the assassination squad, but in flashbacks we also see her youthful training sessions and pre-attack happiness. Thurman has more to play than just ‘badass killing people’ and the character has a journey this time.
* Reverend Harmony (Bo Svenson) and his wife (Jeannie Epper) feature in the scenes leading up to the wedding massacre, which is revealed to be at a wedding *rehearsal* rather than the ceremony itself. (Clunky dialogue is needed to explain why the Bride is in a wedding dress!) We also meet groom-to-be Tommy Plympton (Chris Nelson) and some of the Bride’s friends.
* Rufus (Samuel L Jackson) is the pianist at the church, who’s killed during the massacre. The character is shot mythically, with few close-ups and surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke, which helps mask the fact he has no purpose in the story whatsoever.
* Budd (Michael Madsen) has retired from the Deadly Vipers in the four years since the attack. He now lives in a trailer in the desert and works as a bouncer in a strip club. He actually feels guilty for what they did to the Bride, but that doesn’t stop him shooting her with rock salt and burying her alive. He’s later killed by his former colleague Elle Driver. We discover he’s Bill’s brother. Madsen’s pretty good.
* Larry Gomez (Larry Bishop) is Budd’s boss who fires him for being late.
* Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) drives to Budd’s in her muscle car when she learns he has the Bride’s Hattori Hanzo sword. She offers to buy it from him, but betrays him and kills him with a poisonous snake. The Bride then shows up, fights Elle, plucks out her one surviving eye, and leaves her with the snake. The set-piece brawl is overloaded with sound effects and features a Sergio Leone-style slow build-up to violence that’s then over before you know it.
* Pai Mei (Gordon Liu) is a powerful and skilful martial-arts master who teaches the Bride. He seems to have superhuman abilities and is a harsh teacher. He’s basically an unlikable version of Mr Miyagi.
* Esteban Vihaio (Michael Parks) is a pimp and a friend of Bill’s. The Bride visits him to find out where Bill is. It’s a redundant scene (the information could be seeded elsewhere), which slows the film down precisely when we want to race to the climax.
* BB (Perla Haney-Jardine) is the Bride and Bill’s daughter, who the Bride believed had died after the wedding massacre.
* Karen (Helen Kim) is an assassin we see in a flashback – she’s trying to kill the Bride moments after she’s discovered she’s pregnant.

Returning actors: As well as characters who’d been in Vol. 1, we now get Samuel L Jackson (this is his fourth Tarantino role) and Sig Haig (who’d been in Jackie Brown). Vol. 1 actors Michael Parks and Gordon Liu actually play new roles here.

Music: Like in the first Kill Bill, the source songs and incidental music – by Robert Rodriguez and RZA – give the film an epic, mournful quality. The best track we hear is About Her, Malcolm McLaren’s moody cover of the Zombies hit She’s Not There.

Time shifts and chapters: The convention of having named chapters continues from Vol. 1: this time they’re called ‘Massacre at Two Pines’, ‘The Lonely Grave of Paula Schultz’, ‘The Cruel Tutelage of Pai Mei’, ‘Elle and I’ and ‘Face to Face’. But the timeline is more jumbled than in Vol. 1. In the present day, the Bride goes after Budd, fights Elle and tracks down Bill. But we see also lengthy flashbacks to the lead-up of Bill’s attack (which is in black and white) and the Bride’s earlier training regime with Pai Mei (positioned so we learn about a technique just before she uses it in the present). We finally learn why Vol. 1 began out-of-sequence with the Verdita episode: it means that the series is topped and tailed by the vengeful Bride encountering a child.

Connections: Pai Mei is a stock character who’d appeared in numerous Hong Kong martial-arts movies. Quentin Tarantino considered dubbing his Cantonese dialogue into English – and doing it deliberately badly – but decided against it. Since this film’s release, the director has occasionally mooted a Kill Bill Vol. 3, usually suggesting it would be about the Bride’s grown-up daughter.

Review: This concluding part of the story is longer than Kill Bill Vol. 1, so there’s more space for the story to breathe and the characters feel richer. It’s also more dynamic than the first film. Not everything goes the Bride’s way, for example. In Vol. 1 she felt like an untouchable superhero who would never lose, whereas here she’s buried alive and tormented and presented with emotional turmoil. It’s more engaging storytelling generally, rather than *just* being cool fight scenes. However, this comes at the expense of brevity. This is a slower movie and it sometimes drags. (Both the Pai Mei episode and the climax with Bill seem to go on and on.) At least there are some pretty images along the way. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is going for a wide-open feel. In the church you can almost feel the breeze coming in from outside, while Budd’s trailer is parked in a dramatic canyon from a John Ford film. There’s also a nice recurring visual motif concerning doorways (at Budd’s trailer, at the church, at a diner, in a hotel room, at Bill’s house…), as well as graves and other rectangular barriers. The film’s aspect ratio even shrinks to 4:3 in a key scene about the Bride being trapped. Having said all that, one of the best sequences in the film is just a blank screen, with the sound of the Bride’s grave being filled in. Taken together, Kill Bill is a mad, sprawling and chaotic four-hour epic. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t.

Seven pregnancy tests out of 10

Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003, Quentin Tarantino)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After waking from a four-year coma, a woman seeks revenge on the people who tried to kill her…

What does QT do? The idea for Kill Bill came about on the set of Pulp Fiction when Quentin Tarantino and actress Uma Thurman busked the basic storyline. Tarantino wrote a few pages, but then got distracted by other projects. Returning to it years later, he came up with such a massive script that – after he’d directed the film – the decision was made to cut it into two volumes. (This is a review of Vol. 1 only.) There’s a special credit to acknowledge Thurman’s contribution: ‘Based on the character of The Bride, created by Q&U.’

Notable characters:
* The Bride (Uma Thurman) wants to kill the gang of assassins who attacked her while she was pregnant and put her in a coma. We never learn her real name: the one time it’s mentioned is bleeped out. She used to be a member of the gang – the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad – until they turned against her. (Her codename was Black Mamba.) Uma Thurman gives a very straight-ahead performance, but the script doesn’t ask for anything else.
* Bill (David Carradine) – codename Snake Charmer – is the leader of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. He doesn’t feature much in this first film and is framed so we never see his face, which builds up his mystery and power.
* Vernita Green (Vivica A Fox) – codename Copperhead – is the first squad member we see the Bride go after. She’s now seemingly retired from the assassination game and is living with her daughter in suburbia.
* Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) investigates the attack on the Bride. He’s assisted by Edgar (James Parks, Michael’s real-life son), who he refers to as ‘Son Number One’.
* Ell Driver (Daryl Hannah) – codename California Mountain Snake – shows up at the hospital when the Bride is in a coma and is just about to finish the job when Bill calls and tells her to stop. She wears an eye patch.
* Buck (Michael Bowen) works at the hospital and takes $75 from a redneck (Jonathan Loughran) so he can rape the comatose Bride. She’s recently woken up, though, so kills them both.
* Budd (Michael Madsen) – codename Sidewinder – is another member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, but this is just a cameo to set up his role in the second movie.
* O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) – codename Cottonmouth – is introduced to us via an eight-minute anime sequence, which tells her backstory and features a fair amount of graphic violence and some paedophilia. In the present day, she’s a mob boss in Toyko who’s backed up by her personal army, the Crazy 88s.
* Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba) is a swordmaster who the Bride visits in Okinawa.
* Sophie Fatale (Julie Dreyfus) is O-Ren’s friend and consigliere.
* Gogo Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama) is one of O-Ren’s best fighters: a young girl in a school uniform who likes killing people.
* Johnny Mo (Gordon Liu) is the head of the Crazy 88s, who all wear Kato masks. The massive fight scene between the Bride and the Crazy 88s features some outrageous violence. The scene turns black-and-white so the gushes of blood don’t get overpowering.

Returning actors: Uma Thurman was in Pulp Fiction. Michael Madsen was in Reservoir Dogs. Michael Parks returns to play his From Dusk Till Dawn character again (see Connections). Michael Bowen had been in Jackie Brown. Sonny Chiba was mentioned in True Romance.

Music: Lots of pre-existing songs are used to give the film a certain sweep and grandeur, such as the sorrowful Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) by Nancy Sinatra, incidental music from a 1972 Italian film called The Grand Duel, and even a bit of Gheorghe Zamfir, whose panpipe track The Lonely Shepherd sounds like a mournful theme from a Spaghetti Western. The klaxon-like sting of Quincy Jones’s Ironside theme tune is used when the Bride sees one of her targets, while the title music from The Green Hornet TV show scores her journey to Tokyo. Japanese rock trio The 5,6,7,8’s play a few songs on screen in the House of Blue Leaves sequence. The most famous track in the film is the bombastic Battle Without Honor or Humanity by Tomoyasu Hotei, used for slo-mo shots of O-Ren and her entourage. But the best is Santa Esmerdalda’s epic disco cover of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, which gives the Bride’s showdown with O-Ren beauty and grace. There’s some bespoke score for the first time on a Tarantino film: a few short cues written by RZA.

Time shifts and chapters: The story is told in discrete chapters with on-screen titles (‘2’, ‘The Blood-Splattered Bride’, ‘The Origin of O-Ren’, ‘The Man From Okinawa’ and ‘Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves’). The events play out in chronological order, other than: a brief prologue showing Bill shooting the Bride on her wedding day; the anime scene, which is flashback to a character’s childhood; and the fact the opening chapter is set after all the others. Putting the Vernita sequence first certainly kicks the film off with a big fight, but the order in which the Bride goes after her foes seems arbitrary.

Connections: The character of Earl McGraw first appeared in From Dusk Till Dawn – he’s again played by Michael Parks. (Additionally, *Edgar* McGraw had been in From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money.) Sonny Chiba’s Kill Bill character, Hattori Hanzo, is intended to be a descendant of the various historical Hattori Hanzos played by Chiba in his 1980s TV show Shadow Warriors. The concept of the Deadly Vipers Assassination Squad is reminiscent of the Fox Force Five TV pilot described by Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction.

Review: Tarantino has always used what writer DK Holm calls ‘magpieism’, a habit of referencing, alluding to, or downright stealing from other movies. Reservoir Dogs is Quentin’s spin on a heist caper; Pulp Fiction is a modern film noir; Jackie Brown is a homage to blaxploitation cinema; and they each feature dozens of postmodern nods to other films (and TV shows and songs). However, along with the conventions and quotations, these movies have their own spirits, their own identities. Kill Bill Vol. 1 is a pastiche of various genres (action, martial arts, Spaghetti Westerns, revenge), but it’s hard to see much substance beneath the style. Even with outlandish characters and plots, the earlier films took place in a recognisably ‘real’ world. Kill Bill, on the other hand, is set in a universe where assassins work in squads and give themselves codenames, where Japanese mobsters wear masks, and where you need to acquire a specially made sword in order to kill a rival. It’s a cartoon world – literally so in the anime sequence. If anything, maybe this movie falls between two stools. If it had been even more stylised, more surreal, more out-there, it might work better. But too often the joke is so earnest it doesn’t stretch very far. (Speaking of comedy, a ‘funny’ scene with Sonny Chiba falls on its face and the film becomes very dull for a while.) In the movie’s favour, the action is violent, well shot and sound-designed to hell (just listen to all those whooshes!). And it’s a story dominated by women, which is refreshing. The Bride, her three main adversaries and a couple of other important characters are all female. But even though it’s fun as 100 minutes of escapism, you miss the loaded dialogue, interesting characters and dark wit of previous Tarantino films.

Seven dishes best served cold (old Klingon proverb) out of 10

Jackie Brown (1997, Quentin Tarantino)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Flight attendant Jackie Brown sees an opportunity to steal half a million dollars from a gunrunner…

What does QT do? The script is an adaption of the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch (1992). When writing his version, Quentin Tarantino changed the lead character from a white woman called Jackie Burke to a black woman called Jackie Brown, essentially so he could cast one of his idols, Pam Grier. (The new surname is an allusion to Grier’s 1974 film Foxy Brown.) He also moved the story’s setting from Miami to LA and cut out a subplot about neo-Nazis. Director Quentin decided against casting himself this time, other than providing the voice for an answerphone machine.

Notable characters:
* Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is a 44-year-old air stewardess who works for a shitty airline so supplements her $16,000 salary by smuggling cash into the country for a gunrunner… It’s a really smart piece of casting, this. Not only because of the associations with the actress’s previous characters – Jackie could be an older version of Coffy or Foxy Brown – but also because Grier is *stunning*. It’s the best acting performance in any Quentin Tarantino film: truthful, charismatic and full of pathos. Jackie is a strong, proud and smart woman who’s been beaten down too many times, and this is the story of her fighting back. She drives the narrative, playing Ordell and the cops off against each other, and comes out on top. She also has a beautifully understated romance with Max Cherry.
* Ordell Robbie (Samuel L Jackson) is a flamboyant and loquacious man who buys and sells guns. He wears Kangol hats and has a small braided beard. Early on in the story, he kills someone rather than let him talk to the cops. He’s then manipulated by Jackie, who cons him into thinking she’s on his side.
* Louis Gara (Robert De Niro) is Ordell’s pal, who’s just got out of prison for bank robbery. He’s a man of few words, but takes part in a fascinating subplot with…
* Melanie Ralston (Bridget Fonda) is a hippy-chick girlfriend of Ordell’s whose main ambition in life is to get high and watch TV. During the film, however, she realises she has a chance to steal Ordell’s cash and asks Louis to help her.
* Max Cherry (Robert Forster) is a 56-year-old bail bondsman, who’s getting bored of his job. When he’s hired to bail Jackie out of jail, he’s quickly attracted to her. It’s a likeable, soulful performance of seen-it-all-before weariness, for which Forster rightly got an Oscar nomination.
* Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker) is an employee of Ordell’s who gets arrested. Rather than risk him blabbing about his business, Ordell kills him. Beaumont’s section of the story showcases Tarantino’s love of long takes: Tucker is only in seven shots in Jackie Brown: one is 150 seconds, another 47, another 100…
* Simone (Hattie Winston) is a friend of Ordell’s who looks after Louis – she entertains him with a Diana Ross impression – then helps out in the story’s set-piece money exchange.
* Detective Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen) is an LAPD cop who takes Jackie in for questioning because he knows he can get to Ordell through her.
* Agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) works for the ATF and is trying to get the evidence he needs to arrest Ordell. It’s a terrific, slightly unbalanced performance, which lifts a non-descript character off the page.

Returning actors: Samuel L Jackson appears in his third Tarantino-scripted film. Pam Grier was mentioned in dialogue in Reservoir Dogs. The shop assistant who sells Jackie a suit – which, by the way, is the same outfit worn by Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction – is played by Aimee Graham, who’d had a small role in From Dusk Till Dawn.

Music: Across 110th Street (Bobby Womack and Peace) from the 1972 movie of the same name is used as this film’s theme song. It appears over the opening credits – a fab sequence showing Jackie go from statuesque to harried as she races to work – and is reprised at the end when Jackie lip-syncs along to it in quiet triumph. Other great pieces of soul music used here include: Strawberry Letter 23 (The Brothers Johnson), Street Life (Randy Crawford) and Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time) by the Delfonics, which becomes an audio motif for Jackie and Max’s relationship. Yet again with a Tarantino film there’s no specially written incidental music. However, finding himself in need of some, Quentin appropriated cues written by Roy Ayers for the Pam Grier revenge movie Coffy (1973). A scene showing Jackie in prison is set to Long Time Woman, a song Grier recorded for a 1971 film called The Big Doll House.

Time shifts and chapters: The story mostly plays out in chronological order, but an important sequence at the shopping mall smartly rewinds twice so we see the same events three times – each from a different point of view. There’s also a minor confusion over when the film is set. We’re told that 1985 was 13 years ago, but Ray later specifies the date as 1 July 1995.

Connections: Six months after Jackie Brown, another film adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel – Steven Soderbergh’s supremely brilliant Out of Sight – was released. As both books feature the character of Ray Nicolette, Tarantino and Soderbergh colluded to each cast Michael Keaton in the role. In a scene deleted from Jackie Brown’s final cut, Laura Lovelace reprised her waitress character from Pulp Fiction; there was even a riff on the earlier film’s ‘Garçon means boy’ gag.

Review: In a fascinating hour-long interview on the Jackie Brown DVD – which catches Quentin Tarantino in a likeable, self-aware mood – the director says he designed this film to be seen more than once. He imagined it to be a movie that people go back to every three years or so. Spot on. This classy film demands to be in your life for a long time: I’ve been watching it for nearly two decades now, and am impressed more and more each time. It’s populated by people you enjoy hanging out with: their dialogue is like music, and everyone feels like a character with a life that extends beyond the filmed scenes. There’s also a *devilishly* clever plot, full of agendas and double-crosses, twists and turns, dark comedy and tension. It’s a long film, but you wouldn’t take a single frame away from it. Everything’s so taut; everything’s there for a reason. As well as writing great scene after great scene, Quentin’s also having plenty of filmmaking fun: a crane shot for Beaumont’s death; split-screen to give us key information at precisely the right time; the same events shown from three points of view; an illustrated map to show Jackie’s flight from Mexico… But these things don’t feel gimmicky. They’re there to tell the story in fun, inventive ways. And the story never disappoints. What’s especially striking is how poignant it is. Jackie Brown is melancholic in a way we hadn’t seen in Tarantino’s work before. At its heart is a love story, which is surprisingly rare in Quentin’s films (True Romance and Django Unchained are the only other real examples). But Jackie and Max’s connection is a grown-up, pragmatic romance: it’s about soul, not sex. They touchingly bond over ageing, weight issues, boring jobs and listening to old music. (Ordell, Louis and Nicolette aren’t spring chickens either, meaning the film is dominated by characters over 40.) Tarantino has a point about this being a movie you can return to. As it gets older, and you get older with it, it becomes more and more effective. A masterpiece.

Ten beauty products out of 10

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996, Robert Rodriguez)

from-dusk-till-dawn-03

Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Criminals Seth and Richie Gecko force a family to smuggle them across the border into Mexico, where they all end up in a bar run by vampires…

What does QT do? Working on From Dusk Till Dawn in about 1990 was Quentin Tarantino’s first paid scriptwriting job. It was a commission from Robert Kurtzman, a special-effects designer who wanted a project to showcase his new company’s talents. (Kurtzman gets a ‘story by’ credit.) It took a few years for the film to go into production, by which time Tarantino’s friend Robert Rodriguez had been hired as director. He convinced Quentin to play the part of Richie Gecko. Creepy and committed, it’s – by some distance – the best acting performance of his career.

Notable characters:
* Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) is a cop who stops at a liquor store in the first scene to shoot the breeze and use the toilet. The part was written for the actor, making use of his slow-talking cadences and world-weary manner.
* Pete Bottoms (John Hawkes) is the guy working in the liquor store. Unbeknown to McGraw, Pete is actually in the middle of being held up by two criminals. It’s a great opening scene. It’s not about what you think it’s about, but is still feeding us important information. There’s then sudden violence, black comedy, flames and gunfire, and it ends on a grandstanding shot of the brothers arguing as they walk away from an exploding building.
* Seth Gecko (George Clooney) is a bank robber who works with his brother, Seth. As the story begins they’re on the run, having stolen a chunk of money, kidnapped a bank teller, and killed a few cops and bystanders. Clooney was then a TV actor but is filmed here like a movie star; he often dominates the frame. It’s a terrifically cool performance, full of vim and swagger.
* Richie Gecko (Quentin Tarantino) is the less levelheaded, more psychotic half of the team. He rapes and kills one hostage, then hallucinates that another is coming on to him. Later, when the characters reach a bar called the Titty Twister, he’s turned into a vampire.
* Gloria Hill (Brenda Hillhouse) is the bank teller, who we first see tied up in the Geckos’ car boot.
* Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel) is a pastor who’s going through a crisis of faith, having recently lost his wife in a car accident. He’s on a road-trip holiday with his two kids, driving a Winnebago around the country, when the Geckos take them prisoner.
* Scott Fuller (Ernest Liu) is Jacob’s adopted son, who likes playing guitar.
* Kate Fuller (Juliette Lewis) is Jacob’s teenage daughter who goes through an awful lot of trauma in the story… and seems to take most of it in her stride!
* Kelly Houge (Kelly Preston) is a TV news reporter who fills us in on he Geckos’ recent crimes, complete with on-screen tallies of how many people they’ve killed. She also interviews an FBI agent played by John Saxon.
* Cheech Marin (of Cheech & Chong fame) has three discrete cameos in the film. (Why? Just because.) He first appears as a customs official at the US-Mexico border, then as the guy advertising all the different types of pussy available at the Titty Twister, then finally as Carlos, Seth’s contact who shows up after all the carnage.
* Razor Charlie (Danny Trejo) is the Titty Twister’s vampiric barman.
* Sex Machine (Tom Savini) is a customer at the bar who joins forces with Seth, Jacob and the others once the vampires attack. He’s generally a comic-relief character with some good gags (and a pop-up gun hidden in his groin).
* Frost (Fred Williamson) is another patron who’s caught up in the chaos. His set-piece scene involves telling an earnest anecdote about Vietnam, which acts as a distraction while Sex Machine comically turns into a vamp.
* Santánico Pandemonium (Salma Hayek) is a dancer at the bar who performs a *spectacularly* sexy routine, which brings the entire room to a standstill… right before she turns into a monster and starts eating people.

Returning actors: Juliette Lewis was one of the stars of Natural Born Killers. Quentin had recently directed George Clooney in an episode of ER. This is Harvey Keitel’s third Tarantino role. Marc Lawrence (who cameos as a motel manager) and Salma Hayek had been in Four Rooms, though not in Tarantino’s section of the film. Brenda Hillhouse was in Pulp Fiction and ER: Motherhood. This is the fourth time Quentin’s played one of his own characters, but it’s the only time he’s done it while being directed by someone else.

Music: The source songs, a mixture of Tex-Mex, blues and country-and-western, are well chosen. Especially effective are the down-and-dirty Dark Night (The Blasters) for the title sequence and the sultry After Dark (Tito & Tarantula) for Santánico’s dance. (Tito & Tarantula actually appear on-screen as the bar’s in-house band.) The bespoke score is written by Graeme Revell but often gets swamped in the sound mix.

Time shifts and chapters: The film is in chronological order, playing out across 24 hours or so. Like in Reservoir Dogs, the robbery that kicks off the plot is not dramatised.

Connections: Deep breath… A few months after From Dusk Till Dawn, a Tarantino-produced movie called Curdled was released. The Gecko brothers are mentioned in the story (we also see photos of them) while Kelly Preston reprises her From Dusk character in a cameo. More interestingly, From Dusk Till Dawn later spawned two straight-to-video sequels and a spin-off TV series. From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (1999) was directed by Scott Spiegel. It’s an inventively shot heist movie and is good, schlocky fun. It was followed a year later by From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter, directed by PJ Pesce, which is actually a prequel to the original; set 100 years earlier, it enjoyably mixes Western and horror conventions. Then, in 2014, a television adaptation of the original film began on cable channel El-Ray. Currently on its third season, it features an all-new cast and expands the movie’s plot in interesting ways. (Oh, and just to be thorough: a documentary film called Full Tilt Boogie (1997) was made about the production of From Dusk Till Dawn. It mixes footage of the actors larking about with coverage of the producers’ dispute with a labour union. There’s a huge amount of hubris on show, but the film also has sequences focusing on likeable crewmembers.)

Review: Partly a road movie, partly a crime film, party a horror and increasingly a comedy, From Dusk Till Dawn has a lot of different tones to balance. So much so, in fact, that even on repeat viewings you forget where the story is heading. It’s not until the 59th minute that something supernatural happens, and the first half of the film is so slick and well written that – whisper it quietly – it’s actually a disappointment when the vampires attack. The early scenes of Seth, Richie and the Fullers contain some terrific dialogue, great group dynamics, reversals of expectation, power games, grudging respect and edgy humour. It’s brilliant stuff. However, in the second half, the character work is mostly forgotten about in favour of Grand Guignol. When the characters arrive at the Titty Twister, the bar is surrounded by flames and neon lights: it’s like the characters are descending into hell. The movie is now all about blood, impalings, severed heads and limbs, and inventive ways of killing vampires. There are lots of effects on show, mostly practical or prosthetic but also some CG, and also a shift towards tongue-in-cheek comedy. It reminds you of, say, Evil Dead II or Bad Taste (both 1987). The film is still entertaining, but frankly the two halves of the story don’t especially marry up. Was the comedic influence from director Robert Rodriguez (who later made the very silly Spy Kids films)? This is such a difficult film for me to score. It has issues, but because the first half is so strong my heart says ten. However, my head says…

Eight psychos do not explode when sunlight hits them, I don’t give a fuck how crazy they are, out of 10